Daily Express


It was once almost exclusivel­y the domain of men but a new book tells the fascinatin­g story of the pioneering women who fought for their right to enjoy the water

- By Jane Warren

THE 2012 Olympics were notable not only for the fact that London became the first city to host the games for a third time but also because women and men were able to take part in an equal number of swimming events. The Internatio­nal Olympic Committee called it a “historic step towards gender equality”.

It had been a long time coming. Though the first modern Olympics took place in 1896, it wasn’t until 1912 in Sweden that women were permitted to swim in them at all.

The British women’s swimming team were triumphant that year, winning gold for the 4x100 metres relay. These aquatic pioneers were expected to pay for their own costumes and training costs.

Leicester’s Jennie Fletcher, one of 11 children, had to fit training in between her six-days-a-week, 12-hours-a-day shifts as a machinist in a hosiery factory; Belle Moore, the eighth of nine children, faced a four-mile walk to the pool and back every time she needed to train – she remains Scotland’s only female gold medal-winning swimmer.

And a fascinatin­g new book reveals that it was only a few years before the extraordin­ary events of 1912 that most ordinary women had been given permission to even dandle around in the shallows.

For much of the 19th century, swimming was mostly the domain of men, and certainly access to pools was a luxury limited by class as well as gender.

“Women were allowed to swim in the sea, as long as no men were around, but even into the 20th century they could be arrested and fined if they dared dive into a lake,” says author Jenny Landreth who has written a “waterbiogr­aphy” that reveals the debt of gratitude owed by modern women to their swimming forebears.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that women were finally, and reluctantl­y granted equal access. Landreth, a keen swimmer, writes movingly of the thanks that are due to “every single swimming suffragett­e, every formidable swimming pioneer who broke the mould”.

We may take the freedom to don colourful scraps of Lycra and dive into swimming pools for granted but she explains that this was a hard-won privilege.

IT WAS in the late 1700s that fearless women first began getting into the sea – although they were required to do so on a separate bit of beach to men, who could frolic naked in the waves.

In November 1782, novelist Fanny Burney described waking at 6am and going by moonlight to the water’s edge “where we had bespoken the bathing-woman to be ready for us, and into the ocean we plunged”.

The bathing-woman would have been in charge of a bathing machine – a glorified hut on wheels – to take women to and from the shore, all the while protecting their modesty.

In this hut, “our plucky novelist would have changed into her flannel slip before some hardy working woman, known as a dipper, yoked a horse to the shed, pulled her over the pebbles and persuaded her into the water”, explains Landreth.

Some dippers were celebrated figures in their towns, including Mary Wheatland “The Bognor Mermaid” who ran the bathing machines from 1849 until 1906, and Brighton’s Martha Gunn who retired after 64 years and even had a pub named after her.

Bathing was one of the few activities an unmarried woman was allowed to indulge in. The novelty appealed to Queen Victoria who, at Prince Albert’s insistence, had a fancy bathing machine parked at their private beach at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

However, mixed bathing was considered a depravity. By the mid1860s, by-laws were in place in coastal resorts to ensure it could not happen. In Suffolk, women were banned from approachin­g within 100 yards of “a place at which any person of the male sex, above the age of 12 years, may be set down for the purpose of bathing”.

In the scorching summer of 1881, one female swimmer from Drury Lane was arrested by a scandalise­d policeman for swimming in the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park and dragged before a magistrate, while 200 male swimmers were left “happily swimming” there.

In 1930, suffrage activist Margaret Nevinson wrote that nearly 50 years later not much had changed. That year “another woman swam in the Serpentine and was fined for her audacity” she noted in a national newspaper. But the tide, as we shall see, was about to turn in women’s favour that same year.

However, though legal segregatio­n SPLASHING THE SEX BARRIER: Liberated women sea bathers in 1921. But in 1900 the bathing hut was still in use. Right, Britain’s mouldbreak­ing 1912 Olympic team in Sweden by sex had by then ended on British beaches nearly 30 years earlier, and the bathing machine might have fallen out of fashion, the naysayers remained.

One of them, a Tonbridge councillor named Donald Clark, insisted that “making girls look like wet Scotch terriers, mixed bathing stops more marriages than any other cause”.

But mixed beach bathing did mean ordinary women were now able to learn to swim rather than merely bobbing about with their heads above the water.

The rise in popularity of sea swimming in Victorian times, combined with an increasing concern for public health had, incidental­ly, led to a growing support for public baths. The 1846 Baths and Washhouses Act enabled local authoritie­s to raise or borrow money to build public pools open to all. “‘All’ meaning ‘all men’, at this juncture,” points out Landreth.

By 1901 there were 200 pools in the UK and women had slowly gained limited access. In 1858, Marylebone Baths in central London was one of the first to admit women following a campaign led by novelist Elizabeth Eiloart. The all-male committee was eventually persuaded to allow women access one day a week, for a trial period.

HER success, explains Landreth, “was motivation for women in other places to campaign for similar rights”. She says Eiloart, like the other swimming suffragett­es, was bold enough “to realise that the ballot box was not the only struggle”.

Gradually, women-only baths opened but there were still inequaliti­es; the ladies’ pool that opened in Ashton-under-Lyne in 1870 was little more than “a soupedup jam jar” according to Landreth: one-ninth the size of the men’s.

By the game-changing Olympic year of 1912, the Amateur Swimming Associatio­n was pushing for more baths that could be used by both sexes at the same time, proving historian Eric Hobsbawn’s point that there is a direct correlatio­n between sport and the emancipati­on of women. It was becoming socially acceptable for women to swim in fresh water, though it wasn’t until 1930 that they were finally allowed to swim in the Serpentine without fear of reprisal.

In the end 21-year-old Kathleen Murphy became the lake’s first authorised mixed bather. Having queued from 5am she took to the water to a tumultuous reaction from the crowd and was awarded a medal for her efforts. Uproarious scenes followed, newspapers reporting that the crowd broke down railings as a throng of girls in “bright hued bathing costumes” followed her into the water.

“From what it is possible to gather, Miss Murphy wasn’t some radical feminist, she wasn’t even a suffragett­e,” says Landreth. “She just wanted to swim.”

To order Jenny Landreth’s Swell: A Waterbiogr­aphy (Bloomsbury, £16.99), with free UK delivery call the Express Bookshop on 01872 562310. Or send a cheque to: The Express Bookshop, Swell Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit expressboo­kshop.co.uk

 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom